Centering People: Why I was inspired to join AFT in the effort to foster equity in agriculture
Day one of my first farm apprenticeship was clearly a test: which of us city-dwelling, idealistic young people could withstand a 12-hour day digging a super-deep, only-slightly necessary irrigation ditch in the cold spring rain of a Michigan April? As the girl who challenged boys to arm wrestling matches at school, I wasn’t about to be labeled as weak. I gripped that shovel tightly and put all my weight into it with my foot as we removed the earth, chunk by soggy chunk. Lunch came after what felt like days and the phrase “no work, no food” was introduced to me as the mantra that would set the tone for the next 10 months of the growing season.
This initiation also set the tone for the gender dynamics that ensued. The women and non-binary workers would implicitly need to prove themselves tough enough, hard-working enough, or otherwise worthy of certain tasks. It was rare to see one of the women (despite how many years they’d been working there) driving a tractor, taking down an order from a chef or produce buyer on the phone, or being consulted to help make decisions about day-to-day priorities for the team. The segregation was subtle, but meaningful, especially to those of us who got fed up with being relegated to tending the herb garden. More than half of the crew were women who already had farming experience or college degrees in agricultural stewardship and were interested in deepening their experience with pest management, soil health practices, business planning, and other skills that would move us closer to having a farm of our own someday. We women quickly learned that if we were going to learn those skills and gain the power to drive the tractor, court customers, and make management decisions, we’d have to get creative.
And get creative I did! After that apprenticeship, I went on to work multiple jobs in farming and food systems for several years, including farming on two other small-scale operations, managing a farmers market, and working on local, state, and national policy advocacy efforts. To deepen my skills for big systems change, I completed a Master of Science at Tufts University in agriculture, food and environment and specialized in progressive urban planning. Throughout my work and education, I’ve focused on the opportunities to foster greater equity across gender and race in agricultural and food systems, both in the U.S. and internationally. One of the professors I was most inspired by during my time at Tufts, Julian Agyeman, introduced his field to the concept of just sustainability, which highlights the need to focus on maximizing human potential in order to realize the potential environmental outcomes that many conservation movements seek. The idea calls us to center equity for all people in our solutions to social and environmental challenges. I wanted to join AFT’s team because I see our Women for the Land initiative and nascent Underserved Farmer Outreach programming as inspiring examples of work that has the potential to shift our existing agricultural institutions to maximize the human potential of those who are poised to assist in the sustainable transfer of land for the next generation.
We live in urgent times. Whether framed as such or not, farmers across the country are already experiencing the impacts of climate change. Those who manage our agricultural lands also hold the potential to reverse some of these impacts through regenerative practices. AFT’s mission to keep farmers on the land through farmland protection and sound farming practices depends on the leadership, cooperation, and buy-in of the people currently managing the land and the empowerment of the people who aspire to take the torch from those aging out of agriculture. Women and other people historically marginalized by our agricultural system will need to take a larger role in the future of agriculture. And increasingly they want to do just that.
AFT’s Women for the Land initiative seeks to address the challenges women face in agriculture in the U.S. Like women around the world, women in the U.S. have always played a key role in agricultural production, and yet have faced social and structural barriers that impact their ability to succeed in the increasingly complex agricultural field. Women, gender non-binary people, and people of color face unique barriers to success in agriculture, including reduced access to financing, technical assistance, and secure land tenure, and these groups remain underrepresented among farmers utilizing conservation incentive programs. Farmers with these identities represent an untapped font of opportunity to ensure that agricultural land stays in production and can regenerate our crucial natural resources.
While women are increasingly playing decision-making roles on U.S. farms, they need more support to gain parity with their male counterparts. Research shows that many women farmers and landowners have a strong conservation and stewardship ethic, yet they often don’t know who to contact to get support implementing conservation practices on their land or accessing funding to support those practices. Efforts like AFT’s Women for the Land initiative show that when women landowners have the (all-too-rare) opportunity to connect face-to-face with each other and with resource professionals in their communities, they overwhelmingly take action toward conservation on their land.
AFT is continuing to research women landowners to fill gaps in knowledge and ensure they are utilized as partners in conservation. Next month we will release our most recent report on non-operating landowners, NOLs, or owners who do not farm the land they own. The results are promising for promoting more climate-smart practices on rented farmland and ranchland.
What excites me about my role at AFT is the opportunity to help activate the people historically marginalized in our agricultural system who are poised to advance our vision for a viable, ecologically sound agricultural future. So much great work has already been done within AFT and through partners around the country, and I’m excited to help amplify these efforts toward our shared vision.